How Leaders Can Recognize When Bias Disguises Itself As Intuition

Even great leaders face an inevitable, unsolvable problem: they’re human.

As humans, leaders make judgments about their environment and the people around them.

As humans, they make influential, sometimes high-stake, decisions.

And as humans—even hard-working, honest, good ones—, they make mistakes.

Two decades in the learning sphere have shown us firsthand how good leaders fall prey to poorly-formed decisions.

It happens like this.

A leader develops certain feelings about something, such as an employee. We’re shaped, for better and worse, by our conditions. So if an employee fell short of our expectations once, we remember—particularly if we’re predisposed with other ingrained conditions to see the worst in people. Psychologists call this the “horns effect”, whereby our later impressions are skewed negatively by a preliminary, often superficial judgment.

Once this bias is established, seeing the employee as anything but inadequate—even when presented with contrary evidence—becomes difficult. This isn’t because we’re malicious, but because we’re unaware of our bias.

The horns effect is one example of what cognitive psychologists call “non-conscious” and psychoanalysts call “unconscious” bias. Both terms mean essentially the same: internal predispositions that individuals don’t know about. Unconscious bias is ubiquitous. As the Neurolearning Leadership Institute put it, “If you have a brain, you are biased.”

Our biases wouldn’t be so problematic if we didn’t make decisions with them. But, for the sake of efficiency, we use short-form, sometimes-superficial judgments to make choices constantly—not from laziness but by necessity. These quick judgments are also known as heuristics, implicit rules of thumb that form intuition and our basic understanding of the world. Thus intuition, summed leadership speaker and consultant Shelley Row for Forbes, is “part of our intelligence.” We’d be lost (and still drowning in decisions from years ago) without these mental shortcuts.

But we’re also lost with them.

Using unconscious bias disguised as heuristics, we choose not to promote the “horned” employee—perhaps to the detriment of our organization’s stability, effectiveness and employee trust. Masked as intuition, our unconscious biases uphold conventions that aren’t working, keep us stuck in roles we hate and hurt the people around us. There’s a fine line between fear, prejudice and other unjustified, damaging feelings and the healthy heuristics of gut instinct.

Here’s how you can tell the difference to own up to your emotions and make better decisions:

1. Become aware of your bias.

To understand your bias, think about your thinking. Psychologists call this metacognition. Start asking yourself really honest questions. What may have lead you to preconceived notions about a given scenario or person? What feelings come up when you think of it? Free associate those feelings with similar feelings from the past. Is there a common link? Examine why you may be biased in a certain way. If you’re coming up with nothing, take personality tests, seek therapy or ask people who are close to you which way you lean.

Metacognition requires taking a moment (or many) to see how you’re reacting to a situation. If your feelings are intense but unsourceable, they may be loaded with bias.

2. Get other people to weigh in, such as members of another team.

With active, 360-degree feedback outside your own perception, you can begin to combat your bias. One effective, consistent way to get different feedback is to surround yourself with people who have opposing biases. For example, if you tend to see the worst in people, get a business partner who usually sees the best in people. The balance between your biases will probably land your joint decisions closer to the

By training your mind to be constantly aware that your unconscious bias exists, you’ll become increasingly able to identify it when it surfaces.

3. Back up your intuition with experience.

Though it originates in your gut, real intuition—the kind we need to make great decisions—is evidence based.

Row calls this combination “infotuition”. Great leaders, she says, “use all the data at their disposal, input from a wide range of sources and they listen to the voice inside their head. It is the combination of cognition and intuition that is powerful.”

Modesto A. Maidique, a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, interviewed twenty leading CEOs about past good and bad decisions. He found, unsurprisingly, that their success rate was several times higher for decisions for which they had field or subject matter expertise than decisions for which they had little knowledge. Those who pass the 10,000-hour threshold would, he concluded, “have a higher quality intuition.”

Thus, despite popular conception, intuition isn’t just “vibes”. Great intuitors and leaders, like Oprah and Warren Buffet, have keen self-perception, indefatigable data gathering and plenty of (sometimes learn-the-hard-way) experience behind each of their decisions. With experience and evidence, gut feelings become more finely tuned.

But sometimes the most challenging aspect of collecting information to make a decision is the information itself. UCLA found that we process 174 newspapers worth of information daily. Sometimes we become so overloaded that we find ourselves playing versions of eenie meenie miney mo.

Once you’ve gathered all the information you can, your gut can then help you distill it. Your feelings will give you hints about whether you’re on to something, which data to pursue or ignore. Says Row,

“Imagine that your brain [is] storing bits of all your life experiences in file folders but some, which are rarely used, are in dusty file cabinets in the back. Intuition–the nagging feeling–is information from one of those dusty file folders trying to get through.”

In short, paradoxically, we use intuition to distill the data needed to make great intuitive decisions.

The sweet spot is, writes Maidique, “when you have the knowledge to shrewdly interpret the facts and the wisdom to steer clear of the biases and destructive emotions that can hinder success.”

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